COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

A terracotta face on the Spa Baths in Ripon.
A terracotta face on the Spa Baths in Ripon.
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David takes a look at some buildings around the Ripon area which, to varying degrees, feature some humorous and irreverent design features.

Architecture is a serious profession.

Architects, certainly in their professional life, tend to be serious people, intent on designing serious buildings that meet their clients’ needs and at the same time ensuring their creations meet the myriad regulations (fire, safety, building . . .) and the needs of construction in terms of stress and load-bearing, for example.

It may not be the fault of the architects, of course – the people, companies or corporations that commission buildings are unlikely to ask for jokey buildings and planning authorities are notoriously slow to grant planning permission to anything out of the ordinary. If a humorous structure is put before them, they are only too likely to laugh only at the effrontery of the applicant.

Yet there is humour in architecture, if you look. It can manifest itself both in entire buildings and in details – sometimes where you will least expect it. It’s well-known that Ripon Cathedral has a comprehensive set of wooden misericords – those tip-up seats that rested the legs of the clergy who had to stand for long periods during services. The misericords have plenty of amusing scenes carved below the supportive flap – people in wheelbarrows, a fox preaching to the geese, for example. But less-recognised are the carvings in the stonework of the structure itself. You may know the gargoyles on the south side (and also in the library on what used to be an outside wall); less noted are the many faces carved in the cathedral, some bearing traces of paintwork and often hidden in dark corners.

Of course, you may think that in the medieval period things were more lax, and that such quirky carvings were the result of careless supervision. In reality, though, there was a different mind-set in the Middle Ages, when there was less division of the sacred and the profane.

What about more “serious” architecture – say, classical architecture? Not much room for humour there, surely. But there is. Michelangelo is one of the great names of art; he was not just a sculptor and a painter but an architect, too. He used the classical style – but he used it in an anti-classical way. He plays with the surfaces of walls by recessing columns, he uses exterior features in interiors, and he exaggerates scales to make dramatic points. This is being deliberately perverse – and it is also, to those who know the language of pure classical architecture, amusing – as it must have been to Michelangelo.

Such architecture is known as Mannerist – and it made ripples around Europe. A provincial style, known as Artisan Mannerism became popular – there’s a small brick building, originally from the mid-17th century, in Ogleforth in York that displays the style, with shaped pediments over the windows and pointy dormers. And, from the late 19th century, the Ripon City Club on Water Skellgate has something of the same spirit.

In the 18th century classical rules were followed much more rigorously – but occasionally humour would break out. That’s why so many of the follies that dot the British countryside date from that period. Yorkshire is one of the richest counties for such follies – and all display a great deal of that elusive architectural humour. From Ripon we have only to travel the few miles to Hackfall to see the style in full flow.

Mowbray Castle is a good example of the built ruin – a structure that purports to be the ruin of a medieval castle but is really a piece of stage setting. It was no doubt inspired by the mock ruins at Castle Howard, designed by the playwright-turned architect John Vanbrugh.

And across the valley there is something even more startling – Mowbray Point, also known as The Ruin, which on one side is a conventional 18th-century Gothick cottage; on the other, facing the gorge of the River Ure and Mowbray Castle, it breaks out into what seems to be the ruin of a Roman basilica.

Elsewhere in Yorkshire the 18th century produced other architectural oddities – like the tapering, triangular Hoober Stand on the Wentworth Woodhouse estate, built to celebrate the defeat of Bonny Prince Charlie’s forces at Culloden in 1746. And, of all the country’s follies, surely the oddest must be The Pineapple, near Airth in Scotland, where a huge stone fruit 53 feet high dominates a former walled garden. Like The Ruin at Hackfall, it’s available for holiday letting.

More locally, humour in architecture can also be found in the streets of Ripon. The Spa Baths, with its riot of terracotta faces and Teletubby-like finials, must surely be the city’s prime example; but you could also make a good case for facades like that on Appleton’s shop, with its pretend Tudor beams intended to add gaiety to the street scene.

These are, perhaps, only incidentally humorous; to see full-blooded whacky architecture, the place to go is Forbidden Corner, where architect Malcom Tempest has come up with a world of architectural oddities that are especially designed to amuse and stimulate. Its whimsy may not be to everyone’s taste, and perhaps cannot really be considered as “proper” architecture; but there is no doubt that it attracts plenty of visitors.

So keep your eyes open; what may at first sight appear to be a staid and sober building may prove to have hidden amusement. And seek out the follies of Yorkshire – they, at least, have no inhibitions in showing their humorous side.